Lupita Nyong’o is famous. That’s what happens when you win an Oscar. Her face is on the cover of my playbill (and the back too, actually, in a chic L’Oreal ad). She—not a burning desire to learn about the Liberian Civil War— is the reason that I’m here surrounded by older white women who I’m guessing also are not experts in Liberia or Civil War (though to be honest in Manhattan, that’s a risky assumption to make).
But Eclipsed is not Lupita’s show. The play, about the four “wives” of a Liberian guerilla leader, belongs rather to the women not on stage. As one watches, one thinks about the Liberian women this play is based on, the women whose personal horrors are being put in motion on stage. Eclipsed is the first performance in Broadway history to be performed, written, and directed entirely by women, of whom four out of five are African. This play is angry. It doesn’t want men.
I feel stupid walking into a performance set during a war I had never heard of, like I’ve forgotten to do my homework and am cheating by expecting just famous Lupita. I shouldn’t have worried. The second my sister and I take our seats, the person next to me reveals herself to be just as lost. “Where’s Liberia again? Africa, right?” the slim woman asks her grey-haired hubby who nods solemnly in response. When Lupita first walks out, I don’t recognize her. Face dirtied and hair matted, she is transformed. Lupita plays Girl. Girl is taken hostage by a warlord and is given the name of Number Four (the fourth wife). She is put under the care of Number One, the bossy oldest wife and Number Three, a pregnant, childish woman who often wears a blond wig and sings to herself. Number Three is a character of stunted growth; exposed to trauma early, physiologically she has not fully developed. Her gag antics and one-liners are in line with my sixteen-year-old sister’s sense of humor. My sister seems to keep giggling long after everyone else in the audience; her laughter lingers next to me.
Inside the shack that is their world, these three women fight over the often-blood stained clothing brought back from war, boil water, and peel vegetables. When a book about George Bush is given to them, Number Four reveals she can read and, in halting English, the wives hear the story of Monika Lewinsky and “Vill Clinton”, giggling and clapping throughout. They revel in the absurd tale of this “boss man” with two wives who is punished by his people. What’s wrong with two women, they speculate? A powerful man being held accountable, imagine that.
There is an urgent humor to the play, a desperate need to distract. Practically every scene ends with a call, a summoning by the invisible man offstage. Rapidly, the women line up like soldiers. When those eyes land on the unlucky wife, she points at herself for confirmation- you want me?- and dutifully runs off stage to the rape that awaits her. We get to either ignore or picture what happens next. I wonder what my sister is thinking and reach for her hand. Is she, am I, is anyone old enough to witness this?
Eventually, the second wife, Number Two, makes an appearance. The only wife to have escaped, she has liberated herself by becoming one of the militia. To avoid victimhood, she has turned aggressor. In tight jeans and a florescent tank top, she holds her shoulders back and swings her gun. This gun is her salvation. Enchanted by the innocent desperation of Number Four (Lupita), she entices the girl, selling freedom from violation through violence. Eventually, Number Four obtains a gun herself and swaggers around, high on power. In what is the most charged scene, Number Four describes handing over young girls to be raped so that she will escape the same treatment. As she stares into the audience and yells that she has been cursed— that the devil is in her—we remember why we came for Lupita. She is frantic, manic.
With the end of the war comes the end of the play. The women are liberated. Number One flees, determined to start life anew and take advantage of the foreign NGOs flocking Liberia to help refugees. Number Two refuses to believe it is over; the violence of war has become her security. She pledges to keep fighting. Number Three has given birth and decides to stay with the warlord, her baby’s father. He invaded her, but their baby is everything to her. The final scene is Number Four, Lupita, bending down either to pick up her gun or the George Bush book. We are left in limbo. Will she continue fighting, inflicting pain on others to stifle her own? Or will she embrace her own victimhood?
The actresses bow and leave. The lights brighten and ushers start guiding us out. I’ve always found plays jarring in their abandonment—one minute you’re completely immersed, the next you’re on 8th avenue being shoved by aggressive Long Island tourists. There is none of the comforting closure you get at the movies, with their rolling credits and music. No transition.
Not ready to leave, my sister and I linger. We notice a group of particularly polished-looking ladies convening towards the front of the theater. When one of the surely ushers asks me if I have a pass for the talkback, I nod (lie). Backing away, we escape to the bathroom. Five minutes later, we slouch in second row seats, hiding behind a heavy woman in teal. Talkbacks are the rare chance to question living art. The actresses come out, relieved of their ripped-up costumes. They wear the uniform of the downtown Manhattan elite. They are no longer Liberian refuges, no longer pretending. Lupita has impeccable posture and is in a silk patterned emerald dress with pointy orange flats. She pauses before every sentence; her voice rich and British. We stare at her with the transfixion only Hollywood stars elicit.
The actresses go back and forth, like a talk show with no host. They discuss the flexible sense of home in this play. Home in the arms of the man who controlled you. Home amongst the soldiers, with your weapons to guard you. A search for home. No matter what happens, whether it is war-ridden or simply not the same, you want to go home. Lupita says that she gets the wherewithal and strength to do this every night by remembering the women who lived through this. She likes that her character is innocent in her treachery, terrified in her courage. She doesn’t think female characters usually get this complexity. Pascale Armand, jokester wife Number Three, says she doesn’t play for laughs, rather for true circumstance. Humor is how these women got through this experience and how the audience will deal with the horror of this play.
They explain that Eclipsed is a starting point, an opportunity to educate by arousing emotion. They realize that the inherent problem with any Broadway production is that it will reach a mostly white upper class audience. They have tried to combat that with their “10,000 Girls Campaign” to bring 10,000 disadvantaged girls from the Tri-State area to this play (as of now their website records bringing 3,000). These actresses know that most theatergoers will walk in not caring about female Liberian refuges and walk out at best momentarily “moved”, before rushing off to the next culturally enriching event on their calendar. They question the idea of activist art. I wonder with them. This play has made me feel, but now what will I, or anyone, do? What is the point if it all lasts only for a moment?